a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Friday, July 1, 2011

A city folks' adventure along the old National Pike

By Scott Beveridge

A restored National Pike tollhouse in LaVale, Md., survives today  as a lonely reminder of America's western migration that changed the world. (Scott Beveridge photo)

ALONG THE OLD NATIONAL PIKE, Md. – A clerk at Billie’s Gas and Grub in the Allegany Mountains immediately takes me for one of those lost city folks when I approach her counter today with a bottle of water in hand asking for directions.

“Yeeeesss. Where are you goin’?” she says when I inquire if the narrow Maryland Route 144 passing her tiny store in Flintstone is part of the old National Road.

“Washington, D.C.,” I respond. “How long does it take to get there?” I ask.

She replies that it’s a 2 ½ hour drive if I hop onto the highway about 10 miles down the road.

“That way you’ll get to see some of the old countryside, blah, blah, blah,” she says, rolling her eyes.

She’s seen my kind before, a nostalgic motorist who sometimes prefers to take the back road to see America from a lost era. I’m slowing down on vacation this week and do not want to compete for a part of the four-lane asphalt with tractor-trailers and rude aggressive drivers to spend some time in the nation's capitol. I’m on this two-lane to experience historic stretches of the National Pike, otherwise known as the National Road, Cumberland Road and Route 40, while this, the nation’s oldest interstate marks its 200th birthday.

The federal government laid out this former turnpike in 1811, and then Congress argued for more than two decades over whether or not the United States should be in the business of building roads. Eventually the tasks of collecting tolls and maintaining this road were turned over to the states as the road expanded into Pennsylvania and beyond during the America’s Western Expansion.

That story is retold at the perfectly preserved LaVale Toll House, which collected in 1833 nearly $10,000 in travelers’ fees during its first year in operation in Maryland. That’s an amazing sum that speaks to the volume of people this road served then, considering the tollhouse keeper charged just 3 cents for every led horse, mull or ass that passed through its gate.

The steep of portions of this old trail over the Appalachians and its dangerous switch backs survive as testaments to the difficulties pioneers faced in forging new territories.

I wonder if most drivers today wearing blindfolds on the nearby modern highways know what they are missing on this scenic byway.

I am traveling the nearly 100-mile stretch between Uniontown, Pa., and Hancock, Md., and pass many stone or brick Colonial houses that once served as inns for stagecoach passengers and cattle drovers in need of rest. Women would enter these old houses through one door leading to the parlor while the men walked through another into the tavern. Guests were charged by the candle inch for the light they burned at night, and they then slept like spoons to compete for the space on the beds.

East of Uniontown I pass a summit with a roadside sign identifying it as Negro Mountain and wonder how such a racist name could still exist in modern times.

Down the road I stop along a curve in downtown Frostburg, Md., to take a peek inside the historic three-story Failinger’s Hotel Gunter. Its brick façade is wearing patriotic bunting two doors down from an old storefront with boarded up windows. The hotel lobby boasts a grand antique wooden stairway oddly paired with a modern hotel registry counter. This town, at its face, is struggling for survival like most between here and there that have been overshadowed by modern highways.

That’s more obvious further east in sleepy Hancock, Md., where it costs just 25 cents to park a car for an hour on Main Street. This downtown is heavily dressed in the Southern Cross, two centuries after that flag was overtaken by the stars and stripes at the end of the Civil War. There is a near-empty store here named Redneck Mall that sells a tacky bikini made with material matching the Confederate flag.

A block away the interior walls of Hancock Town Tavern are lined with too man shot-down animal trophies to count. Their mounted heads in such forms as a zebra, moose and horned wild boar hog are perched near four breathing and seated bar patrons who cannot seem to quit staring me down.

At this point I realize I’m an out-of-place tourist from the North who needs to redirect myself back to the fast lanes of travel.


Rebecca M. said...

Really enjoyed this post, Scott. Served as a reminder that taking the "Road less traveled" is a much more interesting way to get from point A to point B. I would much rather see a Confederate flag Bikini than count the white lines on a four lane interstate.

Scott Beveridge said...

Thanks Rebecca. I had fun on that road.

W. Keith McManus said...

Scott, I have driven old Route 40 many times when making the trip back and forth between Uniontown and Washington, D.C. In the mid 60s before I68 was begun it was easy to make the trip pretty much uninterrupted on two lane 40. Hancock was a frequent stop. The Park N Dine Restaurant in the eastern part of town has been a favorite for many years. In the past it also had a Texaco station as part of the business.